HORTICULTURAL THERAPY & GARDENING AS MEDITATION
Any gardener worth their trowel will tell you that gardening is their preferred form of meditation. But horticultural therapy, or the practice of healing through interaction with plants, is nearly as old as the United States. Dr. Benjamin Rush was a 19th century proponent of horticultural therapy, noting its positive effect on those suffering from mental illnesses.
Following the First and Second World Wars, mentally and physically traumatized veterans engaged in horticultural therapy as a healing practice. This form of therapy, however, has come a long way in the past few decades. Like the plants themselves, this practice took root, branched out, and has flowered in unexpected directions. Here in the 21st century, we have a specific set of protocols and designs for therapy sessions and healing gardens. This form of therapy is a valuable addition to the array of supplementary treatment options available to those in recovery.
First and foremost, horticultural therapy works by facilitating an individual’s interaction with nature. Patients may or may not work with specially trained horticultural therapists. Sometimes, the addition of programming to a patient’s gardening regimen proves effective. Other times, patients tend their gardens alone or in groups.
After all, plants are in and of themselves, deeply stimulating to the senses: they have unique smells and textures, they move and rustle in the wind. Studies show that just encountering plants decreases anxiety and increases wellbeing whether in a greenhouse, garden, or in a residence. Purposeful gardening, it turns out, produces an even higher benefit to the individual’s mental health (The Journal of Health Psychology). This is not just because of the Vitamin D generated by exposure to natural light, nor the physical health and dexterity promoted by planting, digging, tilling and trimming.
Many of the benefits conferred by horticultural therapy stem from the responsibility and accomplishment that come with gardening. In a recovery setting, patients often collaborate with one another to maintain the overall health of a therapeutic garden. This improves socialization and accountability.
Additionally, one must mindfully tend to the plants in order to nurture them from seed, to seedling, to full-blown flower. When a plant thrives, the gardener receives a natural and tangible sense of accomplishment that builds self-esteem and confidence. Gardening is a contemplative activity, and moreover, one that mirrors the stages of recovery. At first, there is hopelessness and doubt. Then comes a small, fragile sprout of personal growth. Eventually, this blossoms into a full-blown successful recovery and the patient’s reintroduction to society at large.